Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
CJA Tours Greek Sites

Center for Jewish Art Symposium Tours Jewish Sites in Greece
by Esther Goldman

From September 8th to 18th, 1997, almost 50 scholars, collectors, and other enthusiasts of Jewish art toured a number of Jewish sites in Greece under the auspices of the Center for Jewish Art, as part of the CJA's traveling symposium "Jewish Art in Greece." Bezalel Narkiss, Shalom Sabar, Ruth Jacoby and Yom-Tov Assis from The Hebrew University led the group and were joined by specialists in Greek Jewish Art and Architecture Elias Messinas (National Technical University, Athens) Nicholas Stavroulakis (Director Emeritus Jewish Museum of Greece) and Zanet Battinou (Curator Jewish Museum of Greece). Among the group were several ISJM members including art historian Esther Goldman, who sent the following report - the editor

At the turn of the century, the Jewish population of Greece was 100,000. Today, only 5,000 Jews live in nine different communities scattered throughout the country. Up to 93% of the Jews perished in the Holocaust. Today, only Athens and Salonika have sizable communities, 3,000 and 1,000 people, respectively.

This is a report of a ten-day visit to Greece under the aegis of the Center for Jewish Art. During the tour, we visited five communities, met their members, visited their synagogues, saw their treasures, and explored their cemeteries. Unlike on CJA tours to other countries, the synagogues we saw were in good condition thanks to the restoration and upkeep of the Central Board of Greek Jewish Communities (KIS) based in Athens. Several derelict synagogue buildings, however, have been demolished throughout Greece in recent years.

The tour began on the island of Corfu which had been conquered by Venice in 1386 and remained under its dominion until 1797. The community is Romaniote, but Venetian influence can be found in its synagogue. A ghetto was established by 1406 following Venetian custom, and the Jewish population was augmented by a large influx of Jews from Spain by the end of the century. Also a significant number of Italian-speaking Jews from Apulia arrived and formed their own congregation together with the Sephardim. The Romaniotes never came to terms with the new arrivals from Spain and Italy. Separate congregations and ritual slaughter were maintained. A census of 1633 put the Jewish population at 2,500. According to an Italian traveler of that time, the majority of the Jews were Italian and the Apulian dialect intermingled with Greek was the common language.

Of the three main synagogues which once existed on Corfu, the Scuola Greca is the only one that survived the Allied bombing during the Second World War (the Tempio Maggio and Tempio Nuovo were destroyed). It dates from the 17th century and is built in the Venetian manner, with the synagogue on the second floor above the community offices and other rooms. The building is in the midst of the old Jewish quarter surrounded by shops and small establishments, some owned by members of the community. Inside the entrance there is a double staircase that leads to the synagogue. The main prayer hall is bright because of large windows which open onto the street, as well as the clean white walls and the high ceiling. The bi-polar arrangement of the ehal on the east wall and the bimah projecting from the west wall is typical of a Romaniote synagogue. Seating for the men is on double benches that run the length of the nave along the axis, so that the view is of the bimah and ehal. The women's section is a balcony parallel to the axis of the nave. There formerly was an exterior entrance to the women's section accessible directly from the street.

The ehal is surrounded by a low, white fence, with decorative wrought iron gates that open out to the congregation. The ehal is elevated on a plinth with two steps leading up to it. Most of the structure is painted white; the flat parts are red, and the decoration is gilded. A set of Corinthian columns with gilded bases and capitals surround the structure. The whole is topped by a dome, reaching almost to the ceiling. At the apex of the ehal above the doors is an oval silver votive plaque in the shape of the Tablets of the Law, dated 1896. Below is an oval silver plaque inscribed "Know before whom you stand." Surrounding the doors of the ehal are hooks to place the rimonim when not in use; usually three pairs are on display. The Torah curtain on the outside of the ehal doors is modern. Once this is drawn aside and the ehal opened, another curtain protects the inside. The Torahs are housed in wooden cases, called tiks, which are covered with fabric attached to the wooden core. A wooden, gilded crown, -- part of the structure -- completes the tik. A pair of rimonim rests on the top. These rimonim come from various places including Turkey and Venice.

The bimah is at the other end of the hall. Elevated above the congregation, it is reached by a double set of stairs. It is as elaborate as the ehal, painted white with gilded decoration. Four Corinthian columns hold up a baroque style canopy. The reader's stand has a bar where the Torah in its tik is placed at an angle for reading.

After a one-hour ferry ride and a two-hour bus trip through the mountains, we arrived at Ionnina, situated in a large valley on a lake. Ionnina became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1430. Christians and Jews were given privileges under Ottoman law, and Jews became members of specialized guilds such as silversmiths, dyers, and textile manufacturers. Ionnina is famous for its silversmiths, and many Jewish silver objects were made there. Under Ottoman rule, the community was drawn into close association with other Romaniote communities. At the end of the 15th century, Spanish and Sicilian Jews settled in Ioninna, but the community is a rare case of Romaniote survival in the face of Spanish immigration. The newcomers were absorbed and no longer practiced their minhag.

Originally there were two synagogues, the Yashan in the old town and the Hadash outside the city walls. Today, only the Yashan survives, reached through the big gate inside the city walls. The synagogue and its surrounding property is enclosed by a high stone wall, within which are ruins of a small oratory that was located behind the synagogue. There is also supposed to be a mikveh, but we did not see it. Upon entering the grounds, there is a courtyard with a succah to the left; the entrance to the synagogue is opposite the ehal.

The interior of the synagogue is divided by four columns into a wide middle aisle and two narrower side aisles. A dome covers the space above the columns. There are three parallel rows of wooden pews on either side of the wide middle aisle, with worshippers sitting back to back on each row. The women's section is upstairs behind a lattice screen. Access to the women's section is from the outside, but the women no longer sit upstairs. Beneath one of the seats behind the main aisle is a crypt, where the congregation's precious objects were hidden in times of danger. A great number of religious items were hidden there during the German occupation and are now on display at the Jewish Museum of Greece.

The large semi-circular ehal is set on an elevated platform against the east wall. Two steps lead to the doors, which are decorated with carved panels. A velvet curtain in the Turkish style, upon which were once embroidered silver medals, serves as a parokhet. The medals had been commissioned by members to commemorate special events.

The congregation's Torahs are all in tiks, like at Corfu. Each is different. The largest tik is called Kol Nidre Torah because it is used only for that solemn occasion. The tradition is that this Torah was found submerged in the water off the coast of Albania. Another tik is hexagonal. Each side is decorated with the motif of a vase of flowers set on a red background. Another Torah is in a silver tik with the Ten Commandments embossed on the front portion and also gilt decoration. This tik has an inscription dating it to 1905. There is a twin to this tik in Athens in the Iannioat Synagogue, though it is dated 1897.

The bimah on the entrance wall is elevated above the congregation and is approached by a short flight of steps on either side. Both the bimah and the ehal have apse-like projections which are visible from outside.

The municipal museum of Ioninna is located in a former mosque not far from the synagogue on top of a hill overlooking the lake. The collection includes Jewish costumes and a few other Jewish items.
Chalkis SynagogueSynagogue at Chalkis, Greece. Photo: Elias Messinas, 1993.

The tour continued to Chalkis, located on the the island of Euvoia, about 100 km. northeast of Athens. According to tour leader Elias Messinas, the Jewish community has existed there for 2,000 years without interruption. Today, the community is comprised of about ten people. Prior to the German occupation, there were 325 Jewish inhabitants. The Jewish Quarter of the walled city of Chalkis is east and south of the synagogue which is located at #27 Kotsou Street. After 1945, most Jewish survivors moved elsewhere in the city. Most of the Jewish property adjacent to the synagogue was sold. The synagogue has existed for 1,500 years and has been destroyed and rebuilt at least six times. The synagogue is in basilica form, with six marble columns forming a nave and two aisles. The long axis is oriented east-west, with the ehal facing east. A number of the funerary inscriptions are attached to the outer walls of the synagogue. These were apparently plundered from a cemetery and used as building material for the fortification of Chalkis erected by the Venetians. When these fortifications were dismantled early in this century the inscribed stones were given to the Jewish community. They were then placed prominently over the exterior window arches of the synagogue which was rebuilt at the time. The "restoration" apparently used the same proportions and some of the surviving sections of the older synagogue. Thus, it is cited as an example of the traditional Romaniote type of Greek synagogue. The mikveh was once located in the garden but was recently was filled in and closed. The columns were part of the old synagogue. The cemetery is on Mesapion Street with graves dating back to the Ottoman period.

Chalkis CemeteryCemetery at Chalkis, Greece. Photo: Rachel Friedman, 1993.

Perhaps the most interesting stop on the tour was the Island of Rhodes, widely known as the bastion of the Christian Knights Templars against Ottoman expansion in the 15th-16th centuries, and now as a popular tourist resort. Rhodes also has a long Jewish history and the remarkably intact Kahal Shalom Synagogue which alone survived WWII (prior to this there were four synagogues with the oldest dating to the 15th century). The exterior is simple and austere, keeping the traditions of the Balkan synagogues. Within, it is divided into three aisles by great arches supported on heavy columns. The bimah and its placement are Sephardic. It has two ehals, one located on either side of a central door in the east wall. Many of the synagogue's Judaica artifacts are now in the Jewish Museum of Greece.

For further reading see: Nicholas Stavroulakis, The Jews of Greece: An Essay (Talos Press, Athens, 1990) and Jewish Sites and Synagogues in Greece (Talos Press, Athens, 1992).

[Table of Contents] [Top of Article] [Next Article]

Contact the Editor of Jewish Heritage Report
Updated: 22-Jul-98